Tag Archive: peace


rice pudding

I woke this morning knowing that I was going to make rice pudding for breakfast. Despite the simplicity of its preparation, I have only made rice pudding three times in my life, so the strength of my conviction that we were having rice pudding for breakfast is somewhat of a mystery.

rice pudding

Photo Credit: cyclonebill; Licence: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I know that rice pudding is traditionally a dessert but it is definitively labelled in my mind as a breakfast item. I know that my mom made rice pudding when I was a kid, and I can only assume she served it for breakfast, thereby creating the association. But I can’t trust my memory. My memories of childhood are so poor that I think I must have been in a coma for half my life and no one is telling me. I wish I were joking, but the reality is that most people I know can relate their childhood experiences in vivid detail while I sit there smiling politely, wondering what’s wrong with me.

My apparent childhood blackouts aside, I can say that rice pudding is a comfort food for me. I didn’t wake feeling any particular desire to be comforted, but when I sat down with my family to eat the pudding, a smile burst forth on my lips, and a warmth circulated through me.

When the kids were finished eating their pudding, both boys came to me separately to thank me for making them a delicious breakfast.  Zachary, my 3-year-old, actually made a point of finding me upstairs where I was employed in the glamorous task of cleaning out the bathroom sink drain. He gave me a hug, thanked me for breakfast, and then on his way down the stairs he commented to his mother that the rice pudding “was sooo yummy.”  Clearly, the rice pudding was a hit.

Sometimes my kids are so sweet I can only assume they have an agenda. And sometimes they do.  But then there are the occasions where their sweetness is genuine.  For all the times their antics make me think I’m going to lose my mind; for all the times I am driving to a symphony of sibling rivalry and I toy with the idea of  stopping the car and dumping the kids by the side of the road;  for all the seventeen thousand times I’ve had to tell one of them to stop picking his nose or to wash his hands or to flush the toilet or to sit up straight at the table or… or… or…  Those rice pudding moments make absolutely everything right again.

Today, I am thankful for… well, rice pudding, I guess.  I’m thankful for these talismans of tradition, the vehicles into which we pour our comforts and memories and transmit them to our children to be carried forth into future generations.  For some, they are lockets, or vases, or figurines.  For me, it is rice pudding.

I picture my boys, older.  Maybe they haven’t achieved something they worked hard for, maybe they’ve lost someone special to them, maybe work is stressful.  Then maybe they start cooking some rice on the stove and the soft bubbling of the thickening liquid calms them.  They add their milk or cream, then vanilla, cinnamon, raisins, reducing everything to a creamy consistency and filling their homes with a sweet aroma.

And if their memories of their childhood are better than mine, maybe they’ll remember the stillness of that one Sunday morning when the sun peeked through the window and they ate a breakfast that warmed their bellies, while they sat with people they loved and in whose presence they felt safe and happy. And maybe they’ll have little ones who will give them big hugs afterwards and thank them for yummy breakfasts.

Then maybe, for a little while, the world will be right again.

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last minute

Christmas ornaments

Photo Credit: James Hawkins; Licence: Public Domain

In past years, despite the faithful nagging of my wife, despite my own distaste for crowds, despite the promises I had made myself in prior years, I have always left holiday shopping to the last minute.

It’s not like I have a lot to do.  Both our extended families, having found that the prospect of purchasing for everyone fostered a sentiment of bitterness about giving (which ran rather contrary to the whole spirit of the season), have opted — and I daresay, after a good amount of urging on my part — to adopt a gift exchange approach.  Each person draws or is assigned a single name and purchases a $50 gift for that single person.  It has restored the proper atmosphere of the holidays in our homes, has eliminated begrudging gift-buying, has reduced the pure commercialism of the season, and has eradicated the nauseating surplus of impractical “junk” we don’t need.

My wife takes care of purchasing all the gifts for the kids, which she usually has finished by May.

Sandra and I do not purchase individual gifts for each other but instead have a tradition of taking each other away for a weekend in January or February.  We don’t get away together very often, so it really is the most meaningful gift we can give each other.

As a result of these traditions, I am only responsible for two gifts and, frankly, I rarely even have to do that, as Sandra has an endearing penchant for returning home from a mid-October shopping trip with a grin on her face and a declaration that she found a gift for So-and-So.  “I thought I was purchasing for So-and-So this year,” I’ll comment quizzically.  “You are!” she replies proudly.

That usually leaves me nothing but Sandra’s stocking to take care of, and store cameras typically capture me dashing in frantically on December 23rd or 24th, an expression of frustration on my face.  So much for holiday cheer.

This year, I learned my lesson, and finished all of my holiday shopping in October.

Just kidding.

did, however, go a day earlier — today, December 22nd — and I did adopt a few practices which very legitimately removed all stress from the experience.  Having tested these practices, I want to pass the knowledge on.

So, today, I’m stepping away from my “Today, I am grateful for…” recipe in favour of something a little different.

Behold, I give you the 11 Tips for Surviving Last-Minute Holiday Shopping.  Why 11, you ask?  Read on.

Tip 1. Don’t leave holiday shopping to the last minute.

I anticipate you will feel a little cheated by that one, which is why I will produce 10 more.  That said, if you remain faithful to Tip 1, you can ignore the rest.  Happy Holidays and I hope you’ll come back for tomorrow’s post: Little Graces.

Still here?  Figured as much. Let’s continue.

Tip 2. Estimate how much time you will need to do everything you need to do, and then double it.  I find myself always getting angry at the delays. I’m screaming at drivers who don’t accelerate as soon as the light turns green, I’m tapping my foot impatiently at the person ahead of me in line who is confirming the price everything against the flyer, etc.  If you block off ample time and don’t waste it with procrastination, you won’t feel rushed.

Tip 3. Patronize local, independent businesses. They need your business more than the conglomerates, and because everyone else is at Walmart and the like, the independent businesses aren’t as busy.  Less busy = less stress.

Tip 4. Try to go to stores that don’t have shopping carts. It seems trivial but, really, the chaos of holiday shopping can bring out the worst in people, and those shopping carts can quickly turn into vehicular weapons.  Steer clear of those and you can avoid frustration at shopping cart traffic jams and avoid injury too.

Tip 5. “Brain shop” before you shop. Try not to take the approach of wandering around a store trying to find stuff. If you’re leaving shopping to the last minute, spend your time in traffic on your commute home from work in the days leading up to the holidays by thinking about what you are going to purchase. Then, see if you can find out online who has those items. It will make battling store traffic a lot easier and faster if you know exactly what you’re getting at the store and can just go in and get it.

Tip 6. Have alternatives. Don’t rely on an item being at the store or at the price you expected it to be. If you show up and it is not there, or three times as expensive, you won’t feel so much frustration or anger if you have a “back-up.”

Tip 7. If you’re able, walk to the stores, or take the bus or, if you drive, park far away from the store entrance. A good portion of my last-minute shopping stress comes from fighting other drivers for those parking spots near the store entrance.  Today, I parked way at the back of the parking lot and walked.  I enjoyed the walk, and never had to fight anyone for the parking spot.

Tip 8. Smile, and be helpful. I kept a smile on my face throughout all of my shopping today. The effect was two-fold: (a) studies have shown that the very act of smiling makes the person smiling feel happier (it works); (b) when you smile at everyone, you find that a good number of them smile back. Everyone wins. Being helpful takes it a step further. If you see someone struggling with taking shopping bags to their car, or someone who doesn’t know where something is, offer to help. That’s what the holidays are all about, right?

Tip 9. If possible, shop without children. I know. This falls into the same category as, “and while you’re at it, I’d like a pony.”  No matter how bad you expect it to be, shopping with children right before Christmas WILL ALWAYS BE WORSE THAN YOU EXPECT IT TO BE. If you have generous friends, family, or an available babysitter, don’t guilt yourself out of asking for their help.  Maybe they’re too busy to provide their help, but it can’t hurt to ask.  Don’t forget to give a small token of thanks for their help: bring back a coffee, or offer to make them dinner, etc.

Tip 10. Be charitable. Organizations like The Salvation Army always have donation kettles at places where people shop. If you can spare a dollar, two, five, ten, twenty, it finishes your shopping trip nicely to deposit it in the kettle and know that someone else’s holiday will be a little happier because of you.

One last thing: Shopping doesn’t have to be done in stores. Make a gift for someone, give something you already have.  At my youngest’s last birthday, my niece very proudly gave him one of her favourite stuffed animals.  Also I, for one, would much prefer to open a card that informs me that someone else in need has benefitted from the giving, than to unwrap baubles.  Donate to a local charity and let the person know that the gift you gave them is that someone else has been made happier, or safer, or healthier.  Will some of those recipients think you’ve “ripped them off?”  Yes, some will.  Tough luck for them.  Like I tell my kids: that warm feeling you get in your belly when you do something good or right is better than any reward in the world; and it is the very essence of this holiday season.

the power of great things

This year seems to be a good one for fireworks.  In August, I wrote of the serendipity of checking into a hotel in Gatineau to visit with friends, and discovering that a fireworks competition was taking place right outside the hotel.  This weekend, I was in Toronto for a conference and it turned out the Toronto Cavalcade of Lights was taking place across the street from the conference centre.

I am a person who hates Toronto very nearly as much as I love it.  Like any metropolis, most days it’s an overcrowded maze of unfriendly people, suffocating subways, grueling gridlock, and discourteous drivers.  It’s a place where there is destitution on every corner, where alleys are bit darker, where people’s dreams are chewed up and spat out, and where the gap between classes is more pronounced than elsewhere, having grown from a dichotomy of the wealthy and the poor to one of the obscenely rich and the profoundly indigent.

But it is also a place where everyone has a niche.  No matter how bizarre your interests, no matter how depraved or puritanical your lifestyle, there will be some alcove in any metropolis where you can find others who appreciate your tastes.  And it is a place where you can see things you will never see elsewhere.

While watching the fireworks at Nathan Phillips Square, sandwiched between throngs of people to the left of us and hordes of them to the right — a circumstance which would normally bring me close to a panic attack — I found a surprising calm and warmth wash over me.

Some of that tranquility found its source in the fireworks show itself because it seems that, the older I get, the more boyish is my fascination with them: the ecstatic bursts of colour, the thunderous booms of each explosion, the majesty of the orchestral track — I find it all thrilling.  Mostly, though, it arose because, for a moment, I pulled my focus away from the show and looked at the smiling faces upturned. There was no place here for family disputes, no place for unruly children and disciplining parents; the rich and poor and everyone in between saw the same show; people who, elsewhere in the world or at another time, might hate or fight or kill each other, stood side-by-side; the only skin color that mattered was the polychromatic glow the fireworks cast indiscriminately on the faces of all assembled; children’s faces were filled with wonder; lovers held each other closer; in short, all was well in that tiny corner of the world.

There is nothing of the experience of watching marvels that is so unique to Toronto, nor even any large city in the world.  But when that peace descends on a city normally filled with coldness and hate, it means something.  In a city so multicultural, where racial tension and ethnic intolerance run high; in a city so uncaring, where the gratuitousness of poverty has exhausted the empathy of so many; in a city so loud, with honking horns and flashing lights heard and seen every second of the day — yes, that peace means something.

homeless children playing

These things happen on a smaller scale every day.  Midst the rubble of catastrophe, people share moments of fraternity.  When I was younger, I remember during a visit to Toronto watching two homeless men embrace, the one flashing a toothless but immensely genuine grin when he saw his friend.  Then the other man pulled back his stained coat to show a treasure: a bottle of whiskey he had managed to palm.  He had come back to share it with his friend.  Yes, I know the bottle might have been stolen.  Yes, I know the men might have been riddled with addictions.  And for those reasons, I did feel a measure of sadness witnessing the scene.  But if I quiet those objections for just a moment, what I see is a brief glimpse of happiness in the lives of the downtrodden.

Today, I am thankful for the power of great things to give us pause and grant us a few moments to appreciate — either consciously or simply by the mere fact of our presence at, or participation in, an amazing event — some of the truly important universal values: togetherness, equality, wonder, and love.  For a little while, it makes me feel that, maybe, the world will turn out all right in the end.

remember

remembrance march

Photo Credit: big-tom-84; Licence: Public Domain

We visited a cemetery today to pay respects.  Although we had no family members buried there, we located a soldier’s grave and placed on it poppy wreaths the boys had made.  The man buried beneath the headstone had been 20 when he died.  In a quiet moment with my eldest, I recited In Flanders Fields… and explained what it meant.  He’s 9 and I suppose he understands it all about as well as I did at that age, when the overwhelming beauty of a person sacrificing their lives for the values we as a country hold sacred is still a pretty abstruse concept.  But this is why we remember on Remembrance Day.  It’s not that we shouldn’t remember every single day we draw breath, but having one day devoted to remembrance helps instill our children — and re-instill us — with an understanding and appreciation.  Maybe they don’t “get it” at first, but eventually they will.  This is how we pass “the torch” and “hold it high.”

Every day, thousands of men and women risk their lives to protect us, keep us safe, and guard our freedom, and there are hundreds of thousands before them who have risked — and, far too often, lost — their lives in service of our country with the same noble objectives.  Some of those who have died have been almost children, the incandescent glow of youth still visible on their skin.  Those who have fought have been separated from their families, subjected to grueling conditions.  They have witnessed horrors most of us could never imagine.

Today, I am thankful for them.  Today, I remember.

intangible pleasures

Coffee Cream

Photo Credit: Krishna; Licence: Public Domain

On Monday, I wrote about my youngest son’s inexhaustible fascination with throwing leaves into the river rapids.  On Tuesday, I talked about the simple delight of flowers.

Writing about these things got me thinking about simple but intangible pleasures in my life: impalpable experiences that give me a brief burst of delight, but which might go unnoticed.  So, today, I started compiling a list. It’s only 3-long so far but I hope to add to it over time.  There is no intrinsic reason why these things should bring me pleasure.  They just do. I don’t even want to analyze it.  Here’s the list:

  1. cream in my coffee: I love watching cream as it is poured into coffee. The way the cream folds into the rich, dark liquid, sinking first to the bottom, and then funneling up the sides in an upside-down mushroom shape.
  2. warmth in the centre of frigidity: have you ever been stuck outside in the dead of winter, with a frigid breeze sucking away all of your body’s warmth. Then suddenly the breeze dies down for a few seconds and it happens right when the sun is shining directly on you?  I love that.
  3. the secret chord: “I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord” — so goes the Leonard Cohen song.  Every once in a while, there is a progression in a musical piece to which I am listening that just blows my mind and fills my chest with excitement.

Today, I am thankful for intangible pleasures.

What are some of your intangible pleasures?  Tell me about them in the Comments.

an ubiquitous liar

It used to be that, whenever I felt sad, I would watch Schindler’s List (1993) or some equally horrific film about the atrocities committed by people against their fellow men and women.  Telling people this always led to quizzical expressions in response.

“Why on earth would you do that?” they would ask.  “Doesn’t that make you more sad?”

Oddly, it didn’t, and not because I’m secretly a sociopath.  I found that, most of the time when I felt sad, it was really me just feeling sorry for myself.  Watching a film about people who suffer considerably more than me helped me appreciate what I had going for me.

As time progressed, I discovered that there were occasions when I would spiral into a very dark pit of despair, with feelings of worthlessness, sadness, and hopelessness swirling around me, mocking me with sharp tongues.  I learned that no amount of exposure to the plights of others could lift me from those depths, no effort at counting my blessings could cheer me.  I came to call those occasions “depression.”

man looking out the window at rain

Photo Credit: Jiri Hodan; Licence: Public Domain

I started this blog a few months ago because  I wanted to stop feeling angry and cheated at the misfortunes in my life.  I’ve had my share of life disasters, but I also have a supportive family, a job, my wife, my children, my health, etc.  Stopping each day to acknowledge something beautiful and wonderful in my life is a way of realizing that my blessings far outweigh the little crosses I have to bear from time to time.  Starting this blog was my own personal brand of cognitive-behavioural therapy, and a heck of a lot cheaper than a shrink.

And it worked!  On the whole, I have been much happier.  Those moments of sadness were more easily chased away.  But depression has still lingered at the sidelines, waiting for me to trip over my self-esteem so that it can fly in and attack me when I’m down.

Some of you might have noticed a period of absence this past weekend where I wrote no posts of gratitude.  Depression had been haunting me all week and finally got the better of me.  It was saying a lot of horrible things about me, and I didn’t feel grateful for much.

Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) often says that depression is a liar.  I agree with her.  The challenge is getting yourself to acknowledge that when depression is sitting on your chest and you’re gasping for air.

Today, I am thankful that my periods of light far exceed my times of darkness, both in length and in frequency.  Others aren’t so lucky.

nature

Last week, we were camping in Algonquin Park, part of a vacation we take each year at the beginning of August.  Nestled in a transition zone between the rugged landscape characteristic of northern Ontario, and the more plateaued and agricultural south, it is an ideal spot to see many different ecosystems up close, working together in picturesque harmony (as nature has a knack for doing).

Algonquin Provincial Park

Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

The park is known for its wealth of interpretive programs which educate visitors about the diversity of organisms that inhabit the area.  Zachary is a bit too young for some of it, but I love watching Gregory lap up the information, ask questions, learn.  One year, he developed a fascination for fungi.  While on trails, we had to stop every time we came upon a mushroom to look it up in our field guide.  Hikes took twice as long as usual, but I was delighted to see him take such an interest.

For me, the draw of Algonquin is in the opportunity to break away from the bustle and noise of populous cities and be in a place where the loudest sound one typically hears is the eerie howl of wolves in the moonlight, or the haunting, mournful call of a loon.  Within minutes of entering the park, I can feel tension disappear from my neck and shoulders, and my heart beats a little bit more slowly.

Alongside hikes, our favourite activity while visiting Algonquin is canoeing out into the rustic interior, a section of the park unsullied by vehicles or nearly any other vestige of civilization.  Time stops, the air is fragrant, and there is almost nothing to see but the illimitable wilderness before us.

Later, by night, far away from the light pollution of cities, the stars of the Algonquin sky are innumerable.

Today, I am thankful for nature, and for the sheer vastness of untouched wilderness in this spacious continent on which I live.

What is your experience of nature?  Share it with me in the comments.

listen

I have the good fortune of living just on the outskirts of a small city.  We are within walking distance of the city amenities, I have a two-minute drive to work, and a large city centre is only a 15 minute drive away.  But, while our house puts us close to city life, our home is also backdropped by an expansive ravine complete with winding river and forest.  The ravine isn’t part of our property, mind you, but we are close enough to a decent habitat for wildlife that we have some of the benefits of living in a more rural location.

When I was young, my grandparents lived along Halls Lake in Haliburton County, Ontario.  When visiting, I could look out their dining room window and see a variety of birds which were otherwise foreign to me in my city dwelling.  Most memorable were the hummingbirds.  I was fascinated by their mesmerizingly fast wings and their apparently effortless ability to hover in mid-air.  To some, the sight of a hummingbird might not be all that remarkable, but it was enough to help form in my mind a dream of living in a place where I could see nature up close.

hummingbird in flight

Photo Credit: Elaine R. Wilson; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Our goal is ultimately to live farther away from the city but, for now, where I live will do. Not long ago, as Sandra and I sat on our back deck, we were amazed to see a hummingbird appear.  We had no feeders to attract them — simply good old-fashioned wildflowers in the garden. I felt blessed, chosen. This small marvel had flown from who-knows-where and had chosen my yard to visit.  It seems silly, I know, but I couldn’t help but feel that something special was happening.

In a similar vein, a more frequent benefit of having a treed property closer to nature is that a number of birds have taken up residence close by.  I love waking in the morning to the sound of a light breeze blowing through the window, billowing the curtains, and the music of songbirds raising the morning from the depths of night.  There is so much variety in their song.  To some, this might not seem like such a great thing, but it brings me a sense of peace and timelessness.  Other times, sitting outside, I am pleased just to hear the wind blowing through the trees, rustling the leaves, and creaking the branches.  That happens when my children are not in proximity, their shouts and screams consuming whatever other sounds I might hear.  But, even when the kids are close, there can be pleasure in the sounds of their play — unfettered laughter chief among them.

Other times, when I am travelling in my car, it is rare for me not to have music playing, and I feel excitement at the ebbs and flows and highs and lows of an operatic aria or symphonic movement.  And when music or nature does not surround me, I am fortunate just to be able to hear others speak to me and to know what they are saying.

In every second of my life, I find benefit in sound — a phenomenon so much more meaningful than the simple displacement of air which forms its physical properties.  Today, I am thankful for the ability to hear, because it is not something to be taken for granted when there are so many people who cannot.

solitude

Sandra has gone away with the boys to visit her sister, and I have been left to my own devices for a few days.  This is a rare occurrence, and I feel rather like a schoolboy being trusted to stay home alone for the first time. I’m so wrapped up in a quandary of how best to squeeze all sorts of tomfoolery into this small allotment of time that I might end up accomplishing nothing much at all.  I cannot possibly fit in a viewing of all of those films that Sandra finds dull or absurd, and listen to music at firmamental volumes, and read all those books I’ve been neglecting, and get down to finishing that novel I started writing a couple years ago, and… How does one prioritize?! Continue reading

moment

Two days ago, I arrived home from a trip out of town around 11:00pm and parked the car in my dark driveway.  The next morning, I went out at 9:00am and got into the driver’s seat. There, directly at eye level, attached to the steering wheel and to the frame of the door, was a perfectly symmetrical spider web.  I felt an immense pang of guilt clearing the threads away with my hand, even though I had to in order to drive, and I was probably doing the spider a favour since it wasn’t likely to catch a lot of bugs there.  The guilt came not only from the feeling that I was destroying something at which the spider had laboured, but also from the sense that I was negating a moment.

Nearly a decade ago, I was attending a wedding near Mont Tremblant, Quebec, and, feeling a little overwhelmed by the noise and activity around me, I decided to take a walk down by the water in the cooler night breeze.  On my way back up the stairs built into the side of the mountain, I was startled to see a doe grazing on some of the long grasses gracing the slope.  The doe was not more than about 10 feet away from me.  Having spent my life living in cities, the sight of deer has always been something worth stopping to observe.  While I was doing so, a buck suddenly burst out from the bushes, jumping and alighting on a picnic table about 5 feet away from me. It might be an embellishment of my imagination, but I remember the moonlight seeming to shine down directly on the buck, regally crowned by his fantastic antlers.  He stood there majestically, elevated on the picnic table which itself was already positioned at my eye level on a plateau higher up the slope. I froze with fear and amazement. He was protecting the doe against a perceived threat, and it would take only the slightest movement on his part to trample me to death. We remained in a brief stand-off, until he and the doe disappeared into the brush.

Then, five years ago, in our first summer in this house, I went out at night and was inspired by the sight of hundreds of fireflies in our garden. I was alone and felt as if I were gazing upon some beautiful magic.

I am skeptic and a cynic.  I don’t feel that these moments have been anything special on a cosmic level and I am not one to believe in fate or signs.  I believe that we see what we want to see in the world and that any meaning we derive might have value for us, but no value beyond that which we assign it.  The above events are really quite commonplace, everyday occurrences.  But they nevertheless have the power of making me more circumspect.  I pause in these moments and feel as if I am experiencing something brief and important and that I need to pay attention.  I am left thinking that everything I have done in life must have been perfect because it brought me to this place, this moment.  For a little while, the experience washes away all of my regrets.

Today, I am thankful for moments.

Have you had any moments?  Please share them with me in the Comments.

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